Building and directing life from molecule to biosphere

Life is tremendously complex and emerges from the dynamic interplay between molecules and their environment. Contemporary life relies on interactions at, and between, different levels of hierarchy and scale: from (bio)molecules to cells to organisms to ecosystems to biospheres. To comprehend how life functions, we need to understand the governing principles, the underlying mechanisms and how these interactions – on all levels – lead to the emergent behavior of what we call “life”.

Such comprehension may be achieved by two different approaches: In the first approach, one would build life, a synthetic cell, from its individual molecular components. These components may be biomolecules directly derived from existing life or they may be fully synthetic molecules or a combination of both. This approach will be particular powerful to unravel the functional principles of life. Generating synthetic life will be an enormous scientific breakthrough and realizing complete control over life will create unprecedented opportunities for new applications. Furthermore, generating life based on an alternative biochemistry will create new insights into the potential diversity of life forms, and may provide new observable indicators that can be utilized in the search for extraterrestrial life. The second approach will be to dissect and study contemporary life. Here, modern experimental technologies are required, for instance, to zoom in on individual molecules, to comprehensively assess genotypes and phenotypes, or to observe the development of life over time. Furthermore, it will be imperative to use mathematical models to handle the inherent complexity of life, spanning over multiple time and length scales and dynamically interacting with changing environments.

Building on an understanding at the systems level, we will be able to direct and correct life. For instance, we should be able to repair malfunctioning life, for which powerful new techniques are becoming available (for instance, genome editing), which will allow us to treat diseases in an unprecedented manner, complementary to current approaches that typically target isolated components or subsystems. Or, we should be able to develop new ecosystems on places where existing ones are lost, damaged or not yet existing. Together, such multi- and transdisciplinary research will generate novel understanding of the functioning of life.